When we’re sick, most of us want to find natural immune support that will keep us from getting sick the next time. Natural immunity can come in a variety of forms, from medicinal mushrooms to immune-boosting probiotics to age-old herbs like Echinacea and elderberry. Pharmaca’s Project Wellness blog will always be your go-to place to find natural immunity tips, as we’ll post suggestions from our expert practitioners about the best ways to stay healthy during cold and flu season. Stay tuned for the latest research and cutting-edge ingredients and supplements that can help boost your immunity—and keep the sniffles and sneezes away.

  • Natural Ways to Enhance Immunity

    Hispanic woman smiling in fieldAre you the type of person that seems to get ill just thinking about cold and flu season? Do you get frequent infections throughout the fall and winter? Once you’re sick, do you have trouble regaining health? Here are some ideas to keep those seasonal illnesses at bay.

    First off, not all illness is “bad.” I tend to look at it as exercise for our immune systems—if we’re never challenged, our immune cells don’t have the opportunity to build up and create memory immune cells for quicker response against future illness of the same kind.

    Here are a few things to consider when trying to stay healthy this season.


    High levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) tend to suppress or lower our immune response to invading pathogens. So make time to decompress and reduce your stress level. If you find you’re responding to stressors in a less than positive way, work on mentally reframing the experiences—it’s not about the stressors, it’s about how we react to them. Whether you do yoga, cook, dance, listen to music (or make your own), take bubble baths or embrace your inner child and color in coloring books, do it and do it often!

    For additional support, drink some stress relief tea throughout the day and/or take adrenal support supplements. Also be sure to get adequate sleep, since increased stress and lowered immunity are among the many effects of sleep deprivation!

    Keep moving

    Exercise helps with lymph flow and the circulation of white blood cells, thereby increasing the detection of illness and helping to combat the illness more quickly. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity, 5 days per week, to get a decent fitness dose.  Of course, check with your medical provider before beginning a new exercise regimen.

    Eat with intention

    Eating for immunity ideally includes a lot of anti-microbial herbs such as garlic, ginger, and parsley. You should also include immune-modulating mushrooms, particularly shiitake. Combining these mushrooms and herbs in a mineral-rich broth is one of my favorite seasonal meals.

    Tried-and-true immune support products

    This is by no means an exhaustive list. As always, consult a supplement-literate physician before adding them to your regimen, in order to avoid any potential medicine interactions and to make sure they’re right for you.

    Regular use of a neti pot/saline rinse can decrease adherence of pathogens to our nasal passages, which is a common entry point of microbes. Although it can take some getting used to (and the willpower to do it), it is well worth the benefits!

    Elderberry syrup or extract is one of my favorite, tasty ways to help prevent and shorten the duration of cold and flu viruses. Not only is it antiviral, but the proanthocyanidins in the elderberries make it a potent antioxidant. Children love it, too!

    Astragalus is an adaptogenic herb that helps keep you protected by enhancing immune function, and helps you deal with stress. That makes it a great preventive herb to take on a daily basis to build up your immune system and help you cope through the holiday season.

    In the first 48 hours of feeling ill, consider frequent dosing with echinacea root. Beyond the initial phase of illness, the root may have little or likely no impact, but when used correctly can be quite helpful. The aerial parts of echinacea however, can be taken throughout the season to strengthen the immune system.

    Andrographis is an excellent immune-stimulating herb to take in the beginning stages of illness. It works to decrease the symptoms of the acute cold or flu quickly, particularly helping to provide relief from sore throat or fever.

    There is an undeniable connection between the gut and the immune system. An incredible 80 percent of our immune system is located in our digestive systems. Probiotics should be taken daily throughout the year to support beneficial flora in the GI tract.

    Vitamin C is a classic immune-boosting standby, and can be dosed in high amounts, up to bowel tolerance, as more is required during acute infections. Lower amounts can be used daily to ward off illness.

    Zinc lozenges, when used within the first 24 hours of illness, can help to shorten the duration and decrease the symptoms of the common cold. Zinc given at appropriate dosages over time can help prevent infections.

    Medicinal mushrooms contain polysaccharides and beneficial compounds that work to modulate or enhance immune function. Taking a mushroom extract or capsule supplement on a daily basis can be very beneficial in helping the immune system to function properly.

    Stay healthy this season and don’t forget to frequently wash your hands! Talk with a practitioner at your local Pharmaca for more information and product suggestions.

  • Medicine Cabinet Spotlight: An Herbalist’s Supplement Essentials

    HannahsPicksOur health care practitioners are pros at recommending natural remedies for customers. But what are the essentials they always keep on hand? We asked Hannah Miles, clinical herbalist and nutrition counselor at our store in Pacific Palisades, Calif. to give us her Pharmaca favorites.

    Host Defense MycoShield Spray
    “This product is fabulous for everyday use. I also always have it on hand when travelling. Just two sprays to the back of the throat 2-3 times a day will keep you protected throughout cold season!”

    Host Defense MyCommunity
    “If on the off chance I do succumb to an illness, the first thing I grab is MyCommunity. At the first sign of a scratchy throat, fatigue or aches I’ll take 2 MyCommunity every 3 hours for the first day, then drop down to 2 pills 3x a day for the next 2-3 days, then 1 pill 3x a day for the remaining few days. This will either protect me from coming down with an illness, or if I do actually fall victim, this will significantly cut down on symptom severity and down time.”

    Boiron Oscillococcinum
    “This is specific to the flu, and is something that needs to be taken BEFORE you actually get sick. But it’s fantastic for reducing symptoms and symptom severity.”

    Garden of Life MyKind Organics Vitamins
    “I take their Women’s Once daily, and their D3 and B12 spray. The sprays are delicious and convenient, and it makes it so I don’t have to take a giant handful of pills.”

    Natural Factors CurcuminRich Theracurmin 300 mg
    “I take this for just general all over health support. The research on Theracurmin is compelling regarding its wide reaching anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. Curcumin is also a fantastic herb for liver support."

    Peter Lamas Rice Protein Volumizing Shampoo
    “This shampoo/conditioner gives my hair incredible volume without leaving any build-up! I can't live without it!”

    Acure Lemongrass & Argan Oil Firming Lotion
    “I love all the Acure lotions, but this is my favorite. I love the fresh scent and its long-lasting moisturizing action!”

    Acure Argan Cell Stimulating Body Wash
    “Features a super-light scent and moisturizing feel without leaving any residue on your skin.”

    Anything from W3LL PEOPLE
    “A fantastic makeup line. I love the fun eyeshadow shades and that it’s one of the cleanest makeup lines on the market!”

  • Prevent Respiratory Infection: Build Immunity Now!

    SnifflyboySeasons are shifting, school has started and germs are making their way around! The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) estimates 10-15 million viral respiratory infections affect Americans each year, with the season peaking in September and October.

    This year, a normally quiet virus strain—Enterovirus D68 (aka EV-D68)—has made headlines because it has caused the hospitalization of hundreds of children across the US. EV-D68 started appearing in force in the Midwest, but has now spread to Utah, Colorado and the northeastern states. In fact, more than 900 children in Denver, Colo. have visited the emergency room since August 18with a respiratory illness.

    There are many different strains of enteroviruses and generally they cause intense common cold symptoms. Though this particular strain, EV-D68, was first reported in the 1962, it has not seen an outbreak of this proportion until now. Top health officials at the CDC say this could be just the tip of the iceberg as far as the number of infections and hospital visits we will see this season.

    Other viruses such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)—common in the fall and winter months—can also infect young children and adults with low immunity, causing symptoms that last for 1-2 weeks and potentially pneumonia.

    Who is at risk and what are symptoms of respiratory virus and EV-D68?

    Anyone can be infected with a respiratory virus, but infants, children and teens are more susceptible because they haven’t built up immunity to the viruses. Children with asthma or prior respiratory problems are particularly vulnerable to EV-D68, which can cause severe symptoms or intensified breathing difficulties. Adults and the elderly with compromised immune systems are also at greater risk.

    Symptoms of respiratory virus infection include runny nose, sneezing, coughing and lethargy. Symptoms of EV-D68 start the same as other respiratory viruses, but the cough can become especially severe, including difficulty breathing or wheezing. It is sometimes also accompanied by fever and rash (note: experts recommend seeing a doctor immediately if you are experiencing this combination of symptoms).

    Prevention for respiratory viruses

    There is no specific conventional treatment for EV-D68 and there is currently no vaccination for it. Conventional medicine suggests getting plenty of rest and fluids and use of over-the-counter cold medicines.

    Practitioners of natural medicine, however, encourage patients to focus on building the immune system before sickness can take hold. The higher functioning your immune system is, the better chances you have of preventing contraction of EV-D68 and other germs going around this season. Beat the bug, don’t let the bug beat you!

    Follow these fundamentals to improve your chances at staying healthy:

    1) Wash your hands often with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the washroom or changing a diaper. Use hand sanitizer throughout the day for added protection.

    2) Avoid or limit your exposure to people showing symptoms of illness (including kissing, hugging, shaking hands and sharing food or utensils).

    3) Avoid or limit touching your face, mouth and eyes.

    4) Clean and disinfect surfaces often (e.g. countertops, toys, doorknobs, shared telephones).

    5) Get plenty of rest and decrease stress where possible, since stress can negatively affect your immunity.

    6) Eat a healthy, whole-foods diet balanced with bright-colored fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and adequate protein (avoid saturated fat, simple sugars and alcohol).

    7) Drink plenty of healthy fluids (e.g. water, herbal tea, electrolytes).

    8) Do your part and take care of yourself; stay home if you're not feeling well!


    Additionally, some of the products below can go a long way toward building your immune system.

    A high-potency multivitamin helps ensure adequate daily nutrition, especially for those that tend to stray from a whole-foods diet. Try New Chapter's One Daily for Adults and Rainbow Light's Kids One MultiStars for children.

    Vitamin D shows a broad range of immune-enhancing effects. Try Pharmaca brand for adults or kids.

    Herbal blends such as WishGarden's Daily Immune or Kick-Ass Immune for Adults or kids or Kick-it Immune for kids, which combine effective immune building and virus-resisting herbs.

    Elderberry is an antiviral that builds immunity, supports upper respiratory health and tastes good, too! Try Gaia Herbs' Black Elderberry Syrup for adults or kids.

    Vitamin C plays an important role in immune enhancement and is antiviral and antibacterial. Try vitamin C with bioflavonoids to help increase the beneficial effects of vitamin C. Try American Health's Ester C for adults or Bluebonnet's Super Earth Animalz Vitamin C for kids.

    Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that inhabit the gut, improving immunity and crowding out harmful bacteria. Try Udo’s Super 8 Hi-Potency Probiotic for adults or Pharmax's HLC Child for kids.

    Keep clean hands with Pharmaca's Organic Defense Hand Cleansing Spritz, which fights germs naturally without drying out your hands.

  • Herbal Spotlight: Umckaloabo

    By David Bunting, Herb Pharm

    Shop all Herb Pharm products >

    The genus of Pelargonium brings to us a large and diverse number of horticultural and perfumery plants, together with a handful of traditional medicinal herbs. Made up of about 270 species, the largest variety and diversity of Pelargoniums occur in the Cape Provinces of South Africa. Of these 270, one species is conspicuous for its sordid history, promising medicinal potential and now, its renewed accessibility by the people of South Africa and the world. This herb is popularly known by the strange name of umckaloabo.

    Locally known as Rabas or Rooirabas, umckaloabo is endemic to South Africa and Lesotho, a smaller country entirely surrounded by South Africa. Umckaloabo and several similar species have been long used in traditional medicine to treat diarrhea and dysentery. Today, umckaloabo has become an extremely popular herbal medicine in Europe for the treatment of variety of respiratory ailments.

    In 1897, an Englishman named Charles Henry Stevens was diagnosed with a lung condition and his doctor advised Stevens to travel to South Africa to recover. While in South Africa Stevens was treated with a root decoction by local healer Mike Kijitse and in a relatively short time Stevens was well enough to return to England, where he was pronounced healthy.

    By 1908, Stevens was successfully marketing a secret patent medicine in England called Steven’s Cure. He called the active ingredient “Umckaloabo,” a name reputedly derived from a combination of Zulu words. More likely, however, this name was just made up by Stevens based on sounds he had heard in South African native languages. One of Stevens’ primary objectives throughout his venture was to protect the identity of his herbal ingredient. And what better way to ensure secrecy than to concoct a fictitious name. Regardless of the etymology, the name “Umckaloabo” stuck.

    Stevens came under the scrutiny of the British Medical Association (BMA), brought about not only by jealousies of the BMA but also by Stevens’ exaggerated claims, his unsupported marketing guarantee and his refusal to disclose the active ingredient in his product. During his time of troubles with the BMA, a purported employee of Stevens opened the short-lived Umckaloabo Chemical Company in New York. Nothing more than a footnote now, it is interesting in that the company’s marketing created the basis for umckaloabo to qualify as an old dietary ingredient under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). After Stevens’ death in 1942, his son sold the product rights, which clearly belonged to the indigenous people of South Africa, to a German drug manufacturer.

    Amazingly, Stevens’ protection of the actual identity of umckaloabo lasted until 1974 when a chemist, due to taxonomic discrepancies, mistakenly identified it as Pelargonium reniforme. This error was later resolved based on phytochemical differences between closely related species and the true identity of umckaloabo was finally revealed publicly as Pelargonium sidoides. With the identity mystery solved, research on umckaloabo was renewed in earnest. Especially in the last two decades, numerous papers with positive findings have been published for umckaloabo’s effectiveness in treating a range of respiratory conditions. These studies support Herb Pharm’s Umckaloabo structure/function statement, “Supports Healthy Sinus, Nasal & Bronchial Function.”*

    As demand for the German preparations escalated, so did the pressure on the wild South African populations of umckaloabo, prompting numerous cultivation projects to help meet demand. Some of these projects were moved overseas, pulling potential income out of South Africa and further upsetting the native communities. Fortunately, the development of cultivation has been so successful that much of the umckaloabo supply today is from cultivated material, thus protecting wild populations. Herb Pharm is proud to offer Umckaloabo that is not only cultivated, but is Certified Organically Grown in its native South African habitat.

    The convoluted journey this plant took during its introduction from South Africa to the rest of the world seems rather extraordinary. But in fact, many plants carry with them similarly remarkable stories. While at times questionable, such accounts are testaments to the intertwined and complex destiny humans and plants share. From food to medicine to environmental stability and even the air we breathe, our lives are inextricably linked to the green world of plants.

    *This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

  • What Are Probiotics (and Why do I Need Them?)

    YogurtProbiotics are microorganisms, including both bacteria and yeast, that live in the small and large intestines (also referred to as the gut). Collectively, all organisms in the gut are referred to as flora.

    There are more than 400 different types of bacteria species living in the gut, accounting for a whopping 3-5 pounds of body weight. Your gut is also home to a network of lymphoid tissue that makes up 60-70 percent of your immune system. That’s why keeping a healthy balance is critical to your ability to fight infection and optimally digest and metabolize food.

    Two genuses of bacteria—Lactobacillus (L.) and Bifidobacterium (B.)—are the most beneficial strains commonly used in probiotics, and a complete probiotic should contain strains of both in order to provide protection for both the small and large intestine. Here are a few examples of specific strains of these genuses that have unique capabilities:

    L. acidophilus strains predominantly live in the mouth, small intestine and vagina. They greatly benefit digestion by producing enzymes that break down food (e.g. lactase, which breaks down dairy), assisting in absorption of vitamins K and B, calcium and fatty acids, and protecting against infection and disease by lowering the pH of the gut to make it uninhabitable by bad bacteria.

    B. bifidum predominantly live in the large intestine and vagina, and adhere themselves to the walls of each, thus preventing bad bacteria from colonizing. B. Bifidum also produces substances that lower the pH of their environment so bad bacteria cannot thrive, and enhances assimilation of minerals.

    Many more strains exist that have shown specific beneficial properties. Consult with a qualified health practitioner for strains that are specific to helping certain health conditions (e.g. L. Rhamnosus, called the “travelers’ probiotic,” because it has shown protection against diarrhea while traveling).

    Beneficial yeast can also serve as probiotics. Here are a few examples of yeasts commonly found in probiotic formulas:

    Saccharomyces boulardii is a yeast that can sustain flora in the gut and help prevent and treat diarrhea from various causes (e.g. traveling or antibiotics).

    Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as brewer’s yeast or nutritional yeast, has been used for thousands of years to make dough rise and create alcohol (due to the yeast’s special ability to ferment certain sugars). S. cerevisiae has many beneficial effects, and is high in protein, fiber, B vitamins and folic acid.

    Different types of probiotics can be helpful for a variety of health conditions—they aid nutrient absorption, produce key vitamins, improve digestion and immunity, balance intestinal and vaginal flora, protect us from antibiotic use damage and improve overall wellbeing.

    Now that we know a bit about types of probiotics, the next step is in figuring out how to choose which one is right for you.

  • Ask a Practitioner: I need gluten-free cold remedies!

    We get questions nearly every day via Ask a Practitioner from people with a variety of health concerns. Our practitioners take turns answering these questions, offering advice based on their experience and expertise. Each week we'll be posting some of these questions with the hopes that our practitioners' advice can help answer some of your health questions.

    Q. I need a cough drop and nasal decongestant that are gluten free. Because of my sensitivities, and because most medications have these ingredients, I always get stuck with a cold without relief!

    A. Pharmaca has a number of gluten-free products to help with allergy and cold symptoms. For cough drops I would recommend Herbal Lozenges by Zand. They’re sweetened with brown rice syrup and come in many flavors such as Elderberry with Zinc and Umckaloabo, an African Cherry.

    We also have many zinc lozenges, which are always effective against a cold or flu. My favorite are the Wellness Zinc Lozenges by Source Naturals, which contain no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. I would also recommend one of our herbal throat sprays, such as a propolis throat spray, to deliver the medicine to the throat and gain some relief.

    As for a decongestant, one of the most popular is Astragalus. It has deep immune-boosting properties and Pharmaca makes a certified organic brand in both tincture and capsule form. Gaia Herbs also makes a great product called Respiratory Defense, which is an all-natural herbal formula to aid in mucus secretions.

    Another suggestion is MucoStop by Enzymedica, which is made from plant enzymes and acts as a decongestant. It contains no artificial ingredients, or allergens such as soy, yeast, wheat or corn.

    -Shannon Wood, Naturopath, Menlo Park Pharmaca

    The information provided here is intended for educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  • Obesity, exercise and breast cancer

    Research has shown that obesity may increase the risk of estrogen-dependent breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Now, a recent study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention suggests that obesity may also increase the risk of triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that is not fueled by estrogen and usually has a poor prognosis.

    The researchers analyzed data from 155,723 postmenopausal women who participated in a large-scale study called the Women's Health Initiative. The women were categorized into four groups, depending on their body mass index (BMI) scores. After an average follow-up period of 7.9 years, 2,610 women were diagnosed with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, and 307 were diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The authors found that women with the highest BMIs were 35 percent more likely to develop triple-negative breast cancer and 39 percent more likely to develop other types of breast cancer than those with the lowest BMIs. Additionally, women who exercised the most had a lower risk of developing both estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer and triple-negative breast cancer compared to those who did not exercise.

    Exercise is also vital for women whose breast cancer is in remission. In a 2005 American Medical Association study, researchers found that women who did at least four hours of moderate exercise per week—such as walking at an average pace—substantially reduced their risk of cancer recurrence.

    If you're a survivor and are interested in finding a community of other survivors to work out with, look into your local chapter of Team Survivor, an organization created just for this purpose.

  • Potassium iodide and radiation exposure protection

    Because of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, many people on the west coast of the US are now worried that they could be impacted by the threat of nuclear radiation coming across the Pacific. The concern is that a nuclear disaster may release radioactive iodine into the air, which, when taken in by the thyroid gland, can increase your risk of thyroid cancer. (A definite concern: Evidence from the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl showed a significant increase in thyroid cancer among those living in the radiation area, especially among children.)

    It’s important to note that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a statement on Sunday, March 13, that it currently foresees no harmful levels of radiation reaching the US. That being said, if you’re still concerned about potential radiation, here is some information from the Food & Drug Administration about the uses and dosages of potassium iodide as a preventive treatment for radiation exposure to the thyroid.

    According to the FDA, potassium iodide can help reduce the chances that the thyroid will absorb radioactive iodine (though potassium iodide does not protect against other complications from radiation exposure).

    The FDA estimates the protective effects of potassium iodide to last only 24 hours, so daily dosing during the exposure period is important.

    Here are the FDA-recommended dosages:*

    Exposures greater than 5 centigrays (cGy)*:
    Birth through 1 month: 16 mg
    1 month through 3 years: 32 mg
    3 years through 18 years: 65 mg
    (NOTE: Adolescents over 150 pounds should take adult dose)

    Exposures greater than 10 cGy:
    18 years through 40 years: 30 mg

    Exposures greater than 500 cGy:
    Adults over 40 years: 130 mg

    *Taking iodine in amounts greater than 1,100 mcg per day should be monitored by a healthcare professional. Sensitivity reactions to iodine include angioedema, fever, joint pain, lymph node enlargement, eosinophilia, rash or thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura.

    Our practitioners caution that taking too much potassium iodide can lead to other health risks, so speak with a Pharmaca practitioner about alternative therapies that might be helpful.

  • Zinc beneficial in reducing cold symptoms and duration


    A new review of studies on zinc as a cure for the common cold has concluded that it can drastically shorten the duration of cold symptoms. The review examined 15 studies that have been done since the 1980s, and found that if taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, you can trim an average of a day of sneezing and sniffling off the standard cold.

    "People taking zinc are also less likely to have persistence of their cold symptoms beyond seven days of treatment," report the authors. Further, "Zinc supplementation for at least five months reduces incidence, school absenteeism and prescription of antibiotics for children with the common cold."

    The author doesn't offer a specific recommendation for dosages, but does warn readers that zinc lozenges filled with artificial ingredients can inhibit the effectiveness of the zinc itself. That's why we love these zinc products, made without all the other stuff:

    Quantum Health Therazinc Echinacea Lozenges: Including other natural immune-boosters like echinacea and propolis

    Cold-Eeze Lozenges: All natural, and available in a variety of flavors

    Source Naturals Zinc Lozenges: In a tasty peach-raspberry flavor to reduce the zinc "aftertaste"

    Read more about the review on the New York Times Well Blog.

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